Would you like to show more compassion to your patients, enhance your listening skills, and improve your decision-making abilities? How about sharpening your focus and concentration, improving your memory, and decreasing the negative effects of stress? Would your patients and staff appreciate you being more accepting, less judgmental, and more responsive in difficult situations? Would it surprise you to learn that there is something you can do that takes 15 to 30 minutes a day to help in all the areas discussed above? If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, read on.
It is really quite simple — and it all starts with developing a mindfulness practice. The research is just too compelling to ignore. Mindfulness has come out from the fringe and into the mainstream — it is no longer a "nice to have" but much more of a "must do". Corporate America is paying heed and incorporating mindfulness practices into its wellness programs, into executive coaching, and as a means to improve team interactions. Here is how mindfulness affects physical structures in the brain:
• The amygdala begins to atrophy, making it less responsive to the negative effects of stress (decreases fear and emotional reactions)
• The hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with learning and memory, shows increased thickness
•The pre-frontal cortex hypertrophies — this is associated with improved thinking, decision-making, focus, and emotional regulation
• The neural connections between the amygdala and other regions of the brain weakens, while areas associated with attention and concentration grow stronger
• Research from the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences: has found an association between mindfulness and anti-aging (increased telomeres in the brain) and improved immunity
There are a myriad of benefits of practicing mindfulness (see below for some practice guidelines to get you started):
• More time spent in "direct experience" mode (vs. the default mode of continually thinking about past and future events) has been associated with increased happiness and decreased depression and anxiety
• Increased empathy and compassion because mindfulness helps us be less self-focused and more focused on others and our surroundings
• Decreased tendency to judge others (including ourselves) — mindfulness helps us notice, yet react less to difficult people and situations
• Improved emotional regulation, making us less likely to respond ineffectively to difficult situations
• Improved thinking, planning, and decision-making — because we are less reactive, our minds are calmer, and we are more readily able to utilize our higher cortical functions
• Increased joy and appreciation for the present moment — no matter what is happening
Here are some simple practice guidelines – exercise for at least 15 minutes a day (the more frequently and the longer you practice, the more benefits you receive)
• Find a quiet place where you will not be interrupted and then focus on the breath, breathing in and out through your nose. (In a recent study with 60 subjects from the Journal of Neuroscience, nasal breathing was associated with improved emotional recognition and memory).
• Continually bring your attention back to the breath, noticing both the in-breath and the out-breath. Also begin to become aware of relaxing your body — do this for at least 10 minutes (and/or several times a day for shorter periods)
• Make a commitment that if the mind wanders, notice this and then gently focus back on the breath
• As you calm the mind and the body, you will begin to notice thoughts — practice just observing the thoughts like you would waves in the ocean. Notice how they come and they go. You don't need to dive into the wave, just observe.
• As you become more experienced with mindful breathing and awareness, then you can begin to practice present-moment mindfulness. This practice of staying in the moment no matter what you are doing allows each activity to bring you joy and contentment.
Mindfulness practice is akin to physical exercise — we all know the importance of daily exercise and how its benefits are both in-the-moment and long-term. Think of mindfulness as exercise for your brain — with its associated cognitive, emotional, and physical benefits. After just a few weeks of practice, you will notice the positive changes (and so will others).